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Obama is right to criticise BP

As I said on Newsnight on Friday, Obama is attacking BP, not Britain.   He’s reacting exactly as we would if an American oil rig had blown up in the North Sea and a huge oil slick expanding by 40,000 barrels a day (8 times worse than the Exxon Valdez disaster in 1989) was devastating the whole coastline of south-east England.   The Daily Mail telling Cameron to “stand up for Britain” jars as usual with its shrill and false patriotism, wholly ignoring BP’s reckless and dangerous safety record over the years.

The Deepwater Horizon oil rig was drilling at over 18,000 feet deep when it exploded, that is in depth half as high as Everest.   Anyone in the oil business will tell you that drilling at such depths is incredibly risky, even with the most conscientious oversight.   BP (revenues last year of $327b) could and should spend far more on safety and environmental precaution.   Yet last year it devoted $16m on lobbying the US Federal Government in order to gain political access to minimize regulation, oversight and enforcement, as well as to seek leniency in circumstances such as the present one and to exercise a grip on the chief US safety watchdog, the Minerals Management Service.

Equally the US public is very conscious that of the two most serious industrial accidents that have occurred in the US in the last half-decade, BP was responsible for both.   In addition to the Deepwater Horizon blow-out which killed 11 workers, the huge explosion at BP’s Texas oil refinery in 2005 killed 15 workers.   The official US report into this latter accident found that “a combination of cost-cutting, production pressures and failure to invest caused a deterioration of safety at the refinery” and also that there was a pervasive “complacency towards taking serious safety risks”.   The combination of the Deepwater and Texas disasters caused by the same company plus BP’s adjudged cavalier attitude to safety and pollution fully explains the outburst of American anger, without any pretensions to anti-Britishness as such.

The truth is, Big Oil is out of control, getting away in many developing countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America with acting almost like a parallel government, paying off judges, community leaders, lawmakers and ministers when major spillages occur, and expecting environmental campaigners to be powerless.   The real problem for Big Oil is not the Deepwater explosion itself, it’s the fact that it occurred so close to the American mainland, and this time they can’t get away with their usual tactics.   If a huge shock to BP is the price for the oil industry to learn indelibly that safety and the environment are more important than oil, then it’s a price worth paying.

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